In Matter of Save America’s Clocks, Inc. v. City of New York, the majority of a divided 3-2 Appellate Division, First Department, panel attempted to clarify the authority of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) under the New York City Landmarks Preservation and Historic Districts Law (“Landmarks Law”).  The majority ruled that the LPC may require a private owner of property purchased subject to a prior interior landmark designation to preserve the historic character and operation of the interior landmark and to continue to permit at least minimal public access to it.

The case involved a 19th Century building in lower Manhattan and, in particular, the clocktower atop the building’s western end, which houses a purely mechanical tower clock with a mechanism similar to London’s “Big Ben.” A room on the building’s fourteenth floor has an interior spiral staircase that leads up to a landing housing the clock’s pendulum, and then to the clocktower’s machine room, where the clock mechanism sits.  Above the mechanism is the clock’s 5,000 pound bell.

New York City owned the building from 1968 until 2013, and used it to house courts and city government offices.  During that time, the LPC designated the exterior of the building a landmark, as well as 10 interior spaces of the building as interior landmarks, including the clocktower gallery, the clocktower machinery room, and the “No. 4 Striking Tower Clock.”  The City conveyed the building to a private developer in December 2013, by a deed that expressly provided that the conveyance was subject to the landmark designation.

Shortly thereafter, the new owner submitted an application for a certificate of appropriateness (COA) to the LPC, seeking permission to refurbish the building’s exterior and interior and to modify some of the landmarked interior spaces. Among other things, the application requested permission to convert the clocktower into a triplex private apartment, to disconnect the clock from its mechanism, and to electrify the clock.

The LPC held a public hearing on the owner’s application. There, the LPC’s counsel advised the commissioners that the LPC did not have the power under the Landmarks Law to require “interior-designated spaces to remain public” and “to require that [the clock] mechanism remain operable.” The LPC then approved the COA.

After various individuals and organizations challenged the LPC’s decision in an article 78 proceeding, a decision by Supreme Court, New York County, partially annulled the COA to the extent that it allowed work inside the clocktower that would completely eliminate public access and allowed work that would convert the clock from a mechanical to an electrical system of operation.  The decision was appealed to the Appellate Division, First Department.

Over the dissent of two justices, a majority of the panel affirmed the Supreme Court’s decision after finding that LPC’s determination was irrational and affected by an error of law because it was based on the erroneous advice of its counsel that caused a misunderstanding of LPC’s authority under the Landmarks Law.  The court concluded that, contrary to the legal advice it received, the LPC has the authority under the Landmarks Law to regulate the clock mechanism because it effectuates the Landmarks Law’s statutory purposes and because the law’s language “clearly gives the LPC authority to require the owner to run the clock by its still functioning mechanism and to deny the request to electrify it.”

The court reasoned that the LPC had designated the building’s fourteenth floor interior, including the clocktower machinery room and the clock machinery, as an interior landmark because the clock’s mechanism “represents an element of the city’s cultural and economic history and contributes to the building’s historical value,” and because maintaining it “would promote pride in the ‘accomplishments of the past’ and advance the [Landmarks Law’s] statutory purposes.”

Moreover, the court said, the LPC’s approval of the clock mechanism proposal was not rational. In the court’s view, the building’s “majestic clock, and its historically significant functioning mechanism, is a perfect example of the very reason the Landmarks Law exists,” because, as provided in Section 25-301(b), the “protection, . . . perpetuation, and use of [objects] of special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value is a public necessity.”

The court also examined whether the LPC has the authority to retain public access to the clocktower, and ruled that, under the Landmarks Law, the LPC may reject a COA that would cause a designated interior to be inaccessible to the public, and may require the owner to continue to provide at least some degree of public access.  The court reasoned that the statutory purposes of the Landmarks Law would be thwarted if the public was denied access to the clocktower and the opportunity to view its historic mechanism.

Whether the First Department’s decision will be the final word on this issue remains to be seen as the sharp division in the panel makes it likely that the case will make its way up to the Court of Appeals.  For now, however, the decision means that the Landmarks Law permits the LPC to require the private owner of property purchased subject to a prior interior landmark designation to preserve the historic character and operation of the interior landmark and to continue to permit at least minimal public access to it.

Early this year, the Supreme Court of New York, Richmond County issued a comprehensive opinion in Galarza v. City of New York, 58 Misc.3d 1210(A), reaffirming and clarifying the nuances of condemnation, takings and just compensation principles as they relate to wetlands restrictions.  The court held that the owner of a 21,000 square-foot vacant lot (“Property”) condemned by the City of New York (“City”) as wetlands was entitled to just compensation in the amount of $669,000, where the fair market value of the undevelopable land was approximately $200,000.

In awarding upwards of 335% of the Property’s apparent value, the court found that the owner was entitled to an incremental increase in just compensation.  This finding was based upon the nature of the wetlands restrictions vis-à-vis takings precedent.  And, it is significant that the court awarded the higher value despite the owner having purchased the Property after it was already designated as wetlands and known to be undevelopable.  This decision follows a late-2017 decision of the Appellate Division in In re New Creek Bluebelt Phase 3 (Baycrest Manor), 156 A.D.3d 163 (2d Dep’t 2017), where the Second Department affirmed, as modified, an increased award as just compensation for wetlands condemnation.

Claimant Ivan Galarza (“Owner”) purchased the Property at a tax lien foreclosure auction in 2003.  At the time the Owner purchased the Property at auction, the Property was already designated as wetlands.  The City later acquired the Property by condemnation as part of its New Creek Bluebelt Phase 4 project.  The Owner and the City both agreed that the wetlands designation precluded the Owner from obtaining a permit to improve the Property and that the highest and best use of the Property, as regulated, would be to remain vacant.  The parties disagreed, however, as to whether the wetlands restrictions constituted a regulatory taking.  The regulatory taking issue is relevant and forms the crux of this entire case because it is precisely the finding of a “reasonable probability of success” in bringing a hypothetical regulatory taking claim to challenge regulations, e.g. wetlands restrictions, that entitles a property owner to the incremental increase in just compensation.

The Threshold Question: Whether the Regulation Is a Background Principle of New York State Law on Property and Nuisance

First, the court addressed the threshold issue of whether the Owner was barred from bringing a takings claim in the first place, because the Owner purchased the Property subject to the wetlands designation.  Relying on Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U.S. 1003 (1992), Galarza stated that the “logically antecedent inquiry” into a takings claim is whether “the proscribed use was part of the title to begin with.”  Thus, before any owner can claim deprivation of economically beneficial uses of property, courts must first determine whether the right to use the property in the manner prohibited was actually part of the “bundle of rights” acquired with title.

In Lucas, the U.S. Supreme Court held that in order for a regulation not to constitute a taking where it prohibits all economically beneficial use of land, the regulation cannot be newly legislated or decreed, but must inhere in the title itself; the restriction must be a background principle of a state’s law of property and nuisance – already placed upon the ownership of property.  After Lucas, the New York Court of Appeals issued four opinions simultaneously in 1997 known as the “takings quartet.”[1]  These four cases established the “notice rule” in New York, whereby any owner who took title after the enactment of a restriction was barred from challenging the restriction as a taking because the use prohibited was not part of the bundle of rights acquired with title by a buyer.

Almost a decade after Lucas, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Palazzolo v. Rhode Island, 533 U.S. 600 (2001), up-ended New York’s “notice rule.”  The high Court held that a per se notice rule was untenable and altered the nature of property because an owner would be deprived of the right to transfer an interest acquired with title (prior to the regulation).  Moreover, the Court held that simply because an owner acquired property after the enactment of regulations does not transform those regulations into background principles of state law on property and nuisance.

In determining whether New York State’s wetlands restrictions affecting the Property are part of the background principles of New York’s law on property and nuisance, the Galarza court answered in the negative.  Interestingly, the City argued, among other things, that protection of wetlands was grounded in common law and cited to medieval England’s use of wetlands restrictions.  The court noted, however, that these restrictions pre-dated the creation of fee estates and that as individual ownership rights began to take shape, wetlands regulations were abandoned in favor of development.

In addition, the Galarza court distinguished the Palazzolo decision issued by Rhode Island Superior Court after remand from the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Superior Court found that wetlands designations were part of the background principles of Rhode Island’s state law.  Conversely, the Galarza decision found that “[w]hile development of wetlands constitutes a nuisance under Rhode Island law, development of wetlands was not a nuisance under New York law.”  The court chronicled the filling and draining of wetlands and the history and treatment of land development in the City from its inception until the 1970s, at which time conserving wetlands became a concern.  “Given this history, it is clear the New York wetlands regulations did not simply make explicit a prohibition on activity that was always unlawful, and therefore the wetlands regulations are not part of New York property and nuisance law.”

The Galarza court also distinguished a 2016 Second Department ruling in Monroe Eqs. LLC v. State of New York, 145 A.D.3d 680, which held watershed regulations constituted background principles of New York law.  Unlike wetlands regulations, watershed regulations prohibit a nuisance by preventing poisoning and pollution of water supplies and drinking water.  Based upon this analysis, the court found the Owner in Galarza was not barred from bringing a takings claim.

The Regulatory Takings Analysis: Per Se, Partial or Not at All

After having found the Owner’s regulatory taking claims were not barred, the court proceeded to the crux of the case: whether there was a reasonable probability that the wetlands regulations constituted a regulatory taking.  If not, the Owner’s just compensation is limited to the value of the Property as regulated.  If so, then the Owner is entitled to an incremental increase in value as just compensation, i.e. the value of the land as restricted plus an increment.  The increment reflects the premium a hypothetical buyer would pay for the Property in light of the probable success on a takings challenge.  (In other words, the Property would be worth more and, thus, entitled to greater value as just compensation for condemnation.)  To show a reasonable probability of success on a takings claim, the claimant must demonstrate that the regulation renders the property “unsuitable for any economic or private use, and destroy[s] all but a bare residue of its value.”

To determine whether there was a reasonable probability of a successful regulatory takings claim, the court considered Lucas, Tahoe-Sierra Preserv. Council, Inc. v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, 535 U.S. 302 (2002) and Penn Central Transp. Co. v. City of New York, 438 U.S. 104 (1978).  Under Lucas, a regulation constitutes a taking per se “only in the extraordinary circumstance where no economically beneficial use of the land is permitted and the regulations have extinguished all of the property’s value.”  In this scenario, no further analysis is necessary.  Galarza highlighted the distinction between “economic use” (returns from actual use or development) and a “property’s value” (market value as regulated or otherwise), but noted that Lucas used these terms interchangeably.  Later, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified Lucas in Tahoe-Sierra : “compensation is required when a regulation deprives the owner of all economically beneficial uses of his land…[and] is limited to the extraordinary circumstance when no productive or economic beneficial use of land is permitted.”  Anything short of 100% loss of value is not a regulatory taking per se and requires additional analysis by the factors enumerated in Penn Central.

Specifically in Galarza, the Property had value as regulated because there is a market for wetlands in Staten Island (discussed below), but the Property had no economic beneficial use.  The court considered two other cases in this respect, namely Lost Tree Vill. Corp. v. United States, 787 F.3d 1111 (Fed. Cir. 2015), and Florida Rock Indus., Inc. v. United States, 18 F.3d 1560 (Fed. Cir. 1994), to determine whether having value without any beneficial or economic use(s) precludes a taking per se.  The court in Lost Tree, on the one hand, held that residual non-economic value (i.e. market value) does not preclude a per se taking because there are no longer any underlying economic uses and the market value (selling the property) is not an underlying economic use.  Florida Rock, on the other hand, held that the value of property as a speculative investment is a proper consideration and that the associated market value precludes finding per se taking.[2]

The court in Galarza agreed with Florida Rock, holding that there is an established market for wetlands in Staten Island (for reasons that are not entirely clear) and that these parcels are bought and sold with an expectation that the restrictions may eventually be changed, waived or modified, or that the parcels might be sold at a profit.  Regardless of the motives and intentions, this market exists for parcels without permissible uses and this market must be considered in the takings analysis.  The Property was found to have a market value of $200,000.  Accordingly, because the Property has value in this market, the wetlands designation does not deprive the Property of all of its economic value (although it does deprive economic use entirely).  Therefore, it cannot qualify as a regulatory taking per se under Lucas.

Having failed to meet the Lucas test, the court then turned to a partial regulatory takings analysis under Penn Central.  This analysis is an “ad hoc, factual inquiry” and considers three factors: (1) the regulations’ economic impact upon the claimant, (2) the extent of interference with “reasonable” investment-backed expectations and (3) the character of the regulation as governmental action.

Penn Central Test Part 1: Economic Impact

First, in evaluating the economic impact, courts must compare the value that the regulation has taken from the property with the value that remains with the property.  Here, the court analyzed precedent set by four previous Second Department cases in wetlands taking cases (ranging from 1984 through 2017).[3]  Based upon these cases, the Galarza court found there was a reasonable probability of a successful regulatory takings challenge where regulations deprived the claimant of all rewarding uses of the property, e.g. development prohibition, and reduced the property’s value upwards of 80-90%.

In contrast, the court cited two other Second Department cases: Adrian v. Town of Yorktown, 83 A.D.3d 746 (2d Dep’t 2011), and Putnam County Nat’l Bank v. City of New York, 37 A.D.3d 575 (2d Dep’t 2007).  In Adrian, the court did not find a regulatory taking where the property value was reduced by a 64% reduction and the claimant sold the 15-acre parcel for $3,600,000, although contended it was worth $10,000,000.  In Putnam County Nat’l Bank, the court also did not find a regulatory taking.  There, watershed regulations reduced the value by 80%, and although the claimant was denied a building permit for a 36-lot subdivision because a sewer could not be built within the watershed, approval was granted for an alternative 17-lot subdivision.  The property was ultimately sold for $1,400,000.  That court found this realization was a “reasonable return”, and the economic impact of the watershed restrictions was not sufficient to constitute a taking.

Here, after various arguments and evidence presented by the parties, the court found the Property to have the following set of values: $200,000 as regulated and undeveloped and $1,701,000 as fully developed.  The court also found that it would cost $469,507 to develop the Property and, when the costs are deducted from the fully developed value ($1,701,000 less $469,507), the value of the return would be $1,231,493.  The difference, then, between the regulated value ($200,000) and the developed value, after costs ($1,231,493), is $1,031,493.  This figure is 84% of the fully developed value.  Another way to view the calculation is that the regulated value ($200,000) is 16% of the fully developed value.  Accordingly, the regulations reduce the Property’s value by 84%.

Penn Central Test Part 2: Extent of Interference with Expectations

Penn Central’s second factor is the extent of interference with investment-backed expectations.  Initially, courts must determine whose expectation to use.  In the regulatory takings context, the expectation of the owner is used because it is his or her land that suffers from the restraint.  To determine just compensation in the condemnation context, the expectation of the hypothetical buyer is used because this perspective determines the owner’s realization upon a sale.

Considering the hypothetical buyer’s expectations, the court must view the reasonableness of the expectation as an objective test: whether the regulation embodied a background principle of New York property and nuisance law.  This is the same consideration in determining whether a regulatory claiming is barred at the outset.  Essentially, it is unreasonable to expect to use property in such a manner prohibited as a background principle of law.  Finding guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court in Palazzolo, Galarza concluded it is reasonable to expect to utilize property as if the regulations did not exist – unless the regulations are background principles, the analysis cannot begin by limiting expectations to only those uses allowed by the regulation if the regulation is not a background principle.

As noted above, the Staten Island wetlands market exists and contemplates that regulations may be changed, waived or modified in favor of future development.  The court here ultimately determined it is not unreasonable for a hypothetical buyer to expect to develop the Property at some future date because, among other things, the wetlands restrictions are not background principles of law.  Accordingly, because any development was totally prohibited by the wetlands designations, then the regulations substantially interfered with reasonable expectations to develop the Property.

Penn Central Test Part 3: Character of the Regulation

The third factor under Penn Central is the character of the regulation.  Courts consider whether it amounts to a physical invasion or, instead, merely affects property interests.  Additionally, courts consider “reciprocity of advantage,” i.e. whether the regulation is part of a general scheme that provides some benefit to the regulated parcel, like a comprehensive zoning plan.  The singling-out of a parcel with a disproportionate burden is indicative of a taking.  The Galarza court found that while wetlands restrictions provide a benefit to the public in general, their burden falls disproportionately on a small group of owners, especially those whose entire parcels are classified as wetlands (as opposed to portions of parcels or parcels that are wetlands adjacent).  Here, the wetlands regulations approach a physical taking because they prohibit development entirely and force the Owner to leave the Property vacant.

Concluding Penn Central

In concluding its Penn Central analysis, Galarza found: (1) the wetlands regulations diminished the value of the Property by 84%, (2) interfered with the reasonable expectations of the Owner or a hypothetical buyer to develop the Property and (3) the character of the regulations is disproportionately burdensome and prohibits all economic use of the Property.  Moreover, the court found that the diminution of value was so great and the prohibitive character so invasive that, even if a hypothetical buyer did not have an expectation to develop, the regulations themselves “nearly approximate a physical appropriation as to constitute a taking under a Penn Central analysis.”

Therefore, the court held just compensation valuation must include the regulated value plus the incremental value to reflect the hypothetical buyer’s likelihood of successfully challenging the wetlands regulations as a regulatory taking.  This increment is a portion of the difference of the valuation over-and-above the regulated value.  Here, the regulated value was $200,000 and the developed value, after costs was $1,231,493; the difference between these figures is $1,031,493, and the increment is a portion of this difference.  (The Owner already receives the regulated, fair-market value as just compensation, so this value is not included in increment calculation).

In determining the actual incremental value, courts consider the time, effort and expense in “de-regulating” the affected land, including without limitation exhausting administrative remedies, prosecuting the takings challenge and the financial cost of “carrying” the affected property.  Here, the court found that the deregulation costs would be $391,882 and deducted these costs from $1,031,493, resulting in a “present day value” figure of $639,611.  The present day value figure must be discounted for inflation and opportunity costs, among other things.  The court determined that the present day value after the applied discount was $469,380 – and this is the incremental value to be applied.  Finally, the court completed its calculation for its award of just compensation: it added the regulated value ($200,000) together with the increment ($469,380), resulting in an award of $669,380 (rounded to $669,000).


[1] The four cases are as follows: Gazza v. New York State Dep’t of Envt’l Conserv., 89 N.Y.2d 603 (1997), Basile v. Town of Southampton, 89 N.Y.2d 974 (1997), Anello v. Zoning Bd. of Appeals, 89 N.Y.2d 535 (1997), and Kim v. City of New York, 90 N.Y.2d 1 (1997).  Gazza and Basile addressed wetlands restrictions.In determining the actual incremental value, courts consider the time, effort and expense in “de-regulating” the affected land, including without limitation exhausting administrative remedies, prosecuting the takings challenge and the financial cost of “carrying” the affected property.  Here, the court found that the deregulation costs would be $391,882 and deducted these costs from $1,031,493, resulting in a “present day value” figure of $639,611.  The present day value figure must be discounted for inflation and opportunity costs, among other things.  The court determined that the present day value after the applied discount was $469,380 – and this is the incremental value to be applied.  Finally, the court completed its calculation for its award of just compensation: it added the regulated value ($200,000) together with the increment ($469,380), resulting in an award of $669,380 (rounded to $669,000).

[2] The court addressed the nuances of speculation:

The cases that hold that one cannot consider speculative uses in valuing property in condemnation cases refer to non-current uses where it is not probable that the property would be put to such a use in the reasonable near future.  This is different from investors who speculate in property by purchasing it on the possibility of expectation that it will increase in value at some point in the future.  In this [latter] sense, speculative purchases represent investment backed expectation.

In addition, the court noted that dollars are fungible and that the land-speculation market provides owners with monetary compensation the same way as any other market.  Moreover, the key inquiry for purposes of just compensation for condemnation is whether there was a reasonable probability of successfully bringing a takings challenge as of the date of vesting – not whether any expectations of future value might be met.

[3] The cases are as follows: Chase Manhattan Bank v. State of New York, 103 A.D.2d 211 (2d Dep’t 1984), Baycrest Manor, Matter of New Creek Bluebelt, Phase 4 (Paolella), 122 A.D.3d 859 (2d Dep’t 2014), and Friedenburg v. State of New York, 3 A.D.3d 86 (2d Dep’t 2003).

Several Long Island municipalities have local laws that peg the issuance of certain building permits to a requirement that contractors and subcontractors be participants in a “qualified apprenticeship program” that is registered and approved by the New York State Department of Labor. While these provisions are often entitled “safe and code compliant construction” and may be perceived as fostering apprenticeship programs for building construction trades, many contractors on Long Island disagree.

They see these provisions as having nothing to do with safety or compliance. They point out that many of these codes do not require that apprentices work on the project or that the selected contractor even employ such apprentices. Rather, all that is required is that the contractor have a collective bargaining agreement with a union that has a qualified apprenticeship program. They contend that these code provisions are aimed at ensuring that contractors affiliated with certain unions get the jobs by prohibiting non-unionized contractors or unionized contractors with affiliated unions that do not meet the qualified apprenticeship program requirement from getting building permits. And they further argue that these provisions add significant costs to the price of construction.

A recent decision by a federal judge may be changing that. But first, a sampling of codes provisions on Long Island that require qualified apprenticeship programs for building permits.

Town of Huntington

Section 87-55.1 of the Huntington Town Code provides that prior to the issuance of “building permits for the construction of commercial buildings of at least one hundred thousand (100,000) square feet,” applicants must “demonstrate that any general contractor, contractor or subcontractor for such project, must have apprenticeship agreements appropriate for the type and scope of work to be performed, which have been registered with, and approved by, the New York State Commissioner of Labor in accordance with Article 23 of the New York Labor Law.”

Town of Brookhaven

Section 16-3.1 of the Brookhaven Town Code requires that prior to the issuance of  “foundation permits and building permits for the construction of a building located in commercial and industrial zoning districts where the square footage of the footprint is 100,000 square feet or greater” and prior to the issuance of building permits for “an addition to an existing building located in commercial and industrial zoning districts when such addition is 100,000 square feet or greater,” that the applicant “demonstrate that any general contractor, contractor or subcontractor for such project participates in an approved apprenticeship training program(s) appropriate for the type and scope of work to be performed, that has been registered with, and approved by, the New York State Department of Labor in accordance with Article 23 of the New York Labor Law.”

Under Brookhaven’s code provision, unless an existing building has a certificate of occupancy or its equivalent, the square footage of the existing building is included in the calculation of the 100,000 square foot threshold.

Town of North Hempstead

Section 24-68 of the North Hempstead Town Code provides the following. “Every contractor or subcontractor who is a party to, or working under, a construction contract with the Town shall be a participant in good standing in a qualified apprenticeship program that is registered with and approved by the DOL and shall have in place apprenticeship agreements that specifically identify or pertain to the trade(s) and/or job title(s) called for within the construction contract.”

Section 2-9.1 of the North Hempstead Code requires that prior to issuance of a building permit for a “large commercial project,” the applicant must demonstrate that “any general contractor, contractor or subcontractor for such project is a participant in good standing in a qualified apprenticeship program that is registered with and approved by the DOL and has apprenticeship agreements, which are specifically identified as pertaining to the trade(s) and/or job title(s) called for by such project.”

A “large commercial project” is defined as “[t]he erection, construction, enlargement, alteration, removal, improvement, renovation, demolition or conversion of a commercial building or structure where such erection, construction, enlargement, alteration, removal, improvement, renovation, demolition or conversion involves an area of 100,000 square feet or more of floor area. The threshold of 100,000 square feet may be met either in a single building or a collection of buildings located on the same property.”

City of Long Beach

Section 7-48 of the City of Long Beach Code of Ordinances covers apprenticeship requirements. It provides that “as a condition precedent for, the issuance of all building permits…for construction of buildings of at least 100,000 square feet…any contractor or subcontractor, who is a party to, or working under, a construction contract, [must] be a participant in good standing of a qualified apprenticeship program that is registered with and approved by the New York State Department of Labor and to have apprenticeship agreements…which have been registered with, and approved by, the New York State Commissioner of Labor in accordance with Article 23 of the New York Labor Law.”

Town of Oyster Bay

Section 93-16.3 of the Town of Oyster Bay Town Code requires that any contractor or subcontractor who is performing construction on any “structures used for purposes other than private one- or two-family residences, and shall include, without limitation, buildings used for offices, retail or wholesale stores, warehouses, schools, and public buildings” shall “be a participant in good standing of a qualified apprenticeship program that is registered with and approved by the New York State Department of Labor and to have apprenticeship agreements, as evidenced by valid D.O.L. certificates of completion which are specifically identified as pertaining to the trade(s) and/or job title(s) necessary for said construction project.”

Sections 93-16.1 and 93-16.2 apply this provision to buildings of 100,000 square feet or more, and have other refinements to that 100,000 square foot threshold.

 Legal Challenge to Oyster Bay Provision

A legal challenge to Oyster Bay’s provisions is pending in the federal court in Central Islip. That case is entitled Hartcorn Plumbing and Heating, Inc. v Town of Oyster Bay.  Plaintiffs contend that Oyster Bay’s code is unconstitutional as it applies not just to contracts that the Town is a party to or funds, but also applies to wholly private contracts.

On February 7, 2018, Judge Hurley issued a preliminary injunction, enjoining the Town of Oyster Bay from enforcing Town Code 93-16.3, with respect to any contract that the Town of Oyster Bay is not a “direct or indirect party.” As a result, at least for now, projects that do not involve the Town of Oyster Bay as a party to the contract or are not funded by the town can get building permits without demonstrating that their contractors participate in “qualified apprenticeship programs.” Whether that ruling is ultimately upheld as the case proceeds is unknown, but it may result in other municipalities reexamining their code provisions voluntarily or as a result of similar court challenges.

On January 24, 2018 the Appellate Division, Second Department affirmed in part, and reversed in part, a trial court order granting Defendant, Bay Ridge Methodist’s counterclaim that certain cladding and a drip edge (a system used to deflect water) installed by the Plaintiff, David S. Kimball, along a party wall shared by the parties constituted a trespass.  See, Kimball v. Bay Ridge United Methodist Church, 2017-03575, Jan. 24, 2018.

In upholding the trespass, the Court stated that Kimball “failed to raise a triable issue of fact regarding whether the cladding and drip edge encroached onto the [Church’s} property.”  As such, the trial court’s trespass finding against Kimball, in favor of the Church, was upheld. However, the trial court’s finding that the trespass must be removed was reversed.

In reversing, the Court stated that “RPAPL 871(1) provides that an ‘action may be maintained by the owner of any legal estate in land for an injunction directing the removal of a structure encroaching on such land.  Nothing herein contained shall be construed as limiting the power of the court in such an action to award damages in an appropriate case in lieu of an injunction or to render such other judgments as the facts may justify.'” (emphasis added)

Finding that the Church failed to demonstrate the absence of any triable issues of fact concerning whether the balance of equities weighed in its favor, the Appellate Division vacated the injunction directing Kimball to remove the cladding and drip edge from the shared wall holding that “[i]n order to obtain injunctive relief pursuant to RPAPL 871(1), a party is ‘required to demonstrate not only the existence of [an] encroachment, but that the benefit to be gained by compelling its removal would outweigh the harm that world result.”

Consequently, since the Church did not prove that the benefit gained by the Church in compelling Kimball to remove the cladding and drip edge would outweigh the harm that would result to Kimball if removed, the Court remitted the matter back to the Supreme Court, Kings County for further proceedings.

Under RPAPL 871(1), and upon the trespass finding, the party trespassed upon became the party with the burden to prove that the benefit of removal of the trespass outweighed the harm to the trespassing party.  It is not enough for injunctive relief that a trespass exists.  The trespassed upon party is tasked with the burden to prove that its damages outweigh those damages that the trespassing party may incur upon removal.

It is interesting to note that, RPAPL 871(2) specifically states that “[t]his section shall not be deemed to repeal or modify any existing statute or local law relating to encroaching structures.”  It would be interesting to know whether a common law trespass claim was asserted in this action, or whether another statute or local law was available that could have resulted in a different and more favorable outcome for the Church.

At its December 5, 2017 meeting, the Town Board of the Town of Southold (“Town Board”) was hit with a tidal wave of opposition to changes the Board was considering to the Town’s Zoning Code with respect to wineries. The proposed changes would have modified §280-13A(4) and §280-13C(10) of the Town Zoning Code. After a five-hour public hearing, the Town Board unanimously withdrew the proposal.

Opponents of the proposal used social media to get the word out about the public hearing, and Town Hall was packed with these folks on the hearing date. Perhaps the Town Board should have taken a cue from that and used social media, including the Town’s website, to explain in advance why they were proposing these changes, who would be affected, and encouraging residents who supported the proposal to attend the public hearing.

The proposed changes were aimed at five zoning districts; namely the Agricultural-Conservation District, Residential Low-Density District R-80, Residential Low-Density District R-120, Residential Low-Density District R-200, and Residential Low-Density District R-400. These proposed changes were not applicable to other zoning districts where wineries are also permitted, such as the Limited Business District.

The existing provisions of §280-13A set forth the permitted uses in these five zoning districts. Subsection 4 applies to wineries and lists the standards applicable to that use in these districts. These include: (a) the winery must “be a place or premises on which wine made from primarily Long Island grapes is produced and sold;” (b) the winery must “be on a parcel on which at least 10 acres are devoted to vineyard or other agricultural purposes, and which is owned by the winery owner;” (c) the winery structures are required to “be set back a minimum of 100 feet from a major road;” and (d) the winery needs to have site plan approval.

The proposed changes to §280-13A would have required: (a) that the wine be “produced, processed and sold” at the winery, which wine had to be made from grapes “of which at least 80% are grown on the premises or other land owned by the winery owner;” (b) the winery must be on a parcel where a minimum of “10 acres are devoted to the growing of wine grapes” and which is owned by the winery owner;” and (c) the 10 acres devoted to growing grapes are in addition to land on which structures are located. No changes to the set back and site plan approval provisions were proposed.

The existing provisions of §280-13C set forth the accessory uses. Subsection 10 applies to wineries. That subsection states that a winery “may have an accessory gift shop on the premises which may sell items accessory to wine, such as corkscrews, wine glasses, decanters, items for the storage and display of wine, books on winemaking and the region and nonspecific items bearing the insignia of the winery.” The subsection also states that a winery “may not have a commercial kitchen as an accessory use but may have a noncommercial kitchen facility for private use by the employees.”

The proposed changes to §280-13C(10) changed the “accessory gift shop” to a “retail gift shop” with the same limitation on the type of merchandise that could be offered. In addition, the proposed changes required that the wine be made on the parcel and permitted 20% of the wine sold at a winery to be from other Long Island wineries. No change was made to the kitchen limitations.

The packed house of opponents described the proposal as “anti-farming” or “overly restrictive.” Farmers who grow grapes for sale to wineries they do not own claimed that the proposal would put them out of business. Some opponents stated that the proposal would be the death-knell to new wineries, which would be unable to make any money while their vines matured over several growing seasons. Others were concerned that natural disasters could wipe out a portion of their crops, and that if they bought grapes elsewhere to replace their damaged crops, they would be in violation of the proposed changes.

The Town Supervisor indicated that the Town Board would go back to the drawing board and reconsider the proposal. Whether the Town Board can come up with a proposal that will not be met with similar opposition is uncertain.

By letter dated November 24, 2009, the Town of Riverhead’s Building Department Administrator provided that the docks, bulkheaded structures, commercial oyster operation, and six summer rental cottages were legal pre-existing nonconforming uses of the property at 28 Whites Lane, on Reeves Creek, Aquebogue NY (“subject property”). The subject property is owned by John and Sandra Reeves, hereinafter the “Respondents”. The Petitioners, neighbors of the subject property, appealed this determination to the Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA”) which rendered a decision sustaining the November 24, 2009 letter. The Petitioners challenged the ZBA’s determination in an article 78 proceeding, Matter of Andes v. Zoning Board of Appeals of the Town of Riverhead, John Reeve et al. Supreme Court, Suffolk Co. Index No. 10-27305, April 8, 2013. The Supreme Court annulled the ZBA’s decision and remitted the matter back to the ZBA citing that the ZBA decision “contained no independent factual findings supporting this determination.”

The ZBA reheard the matter on June 23, 2016. By decision dated August 11, 2016, the ZBA again sustained the November 24, 2009 letter as to the pre-existing nonconforming uses on the property. This time, however, the ZBA’s record was replete with factual findings in support of its determination.

The Town of Riverhead first adopted its zoning code in 1959. Several zoning amendments were made throughout the years, rendering the different uses of the subject property nonconforming at different times. [1]    The ZBA considered testimony from numerous sources establishing the continuing pre-existing nonconforming uses and structures on the subject property. For example, with regard to the shellfish operation, Robert E. White, the son of Washington White, testified at the July 23, 2009 ZBA hearing that his family purchased the property in the 1930’s and that it was used for a shellfish operation which was continued by his brother Benjamin White. He further submitted that the “underwater property” was purchased by the Lessard family in the 1990’s who “continued the operation.” David Lessard testified that he continued the commercial shellfish operation to the present day.  The ZBA made further findings, sustained in part by similar testimonial evidence, supporting the pre-existing nonconforming summer cottages and marina uses.  Ultimately, the ZBA upheld the November 24, 2009 Building Department Administrator letter once again.

The neighbors challenged this ZBA determination in a second article 78 proceeding entitled Matter of Andes v. Zoning Board of Appeal of Town of Riverhead et al., Sup. Ct. Suffolk Co., Index No. 16-8742, December 15, 2017.

Petitioners argued that (i) the Respondents failed to provide business records to corroborate the continuance of the marina or commercial oyster operation, (ii) the commercial oyster operation was run without the proper shell-fishing permits, (iii) the marina structures were not completed until 2008, and (iv) the basin where the shellfish operation took place had non-functional bulkheading and required dredging to be operational during the time periods they were claimed to be in use, among others. Notably, Petitioners alleged that the majority of the evidence relied upon by the ZBA was based on the testimony of Respondents, the Reeves, and their primary witnesses who Petitioners argued were “town insiders” since they worked for the Town of Riverhead.

The Court reviewed the evidence considered and findings made by the ZBA in its decision and held that the ZBA decision was rational and not arbitrary and capricious. The Court set forth the standard of review for pre-existing nonconforming uses and restated the long-standing legal principle that a court cannot substitute its judgment for that of the board. Petitioners clearly wanted the Court to weigh the value of the evidence relied upon by the ZBA; however, the Court stated:

Here, it cannot be said that the Zoning Board’s decision lacks evidentiary support in the record; that the nature of the evidence relied on by the Zoning Board is almost entirely testimonial is of no consequence for purposes of this analysis (see Town of Ithaca v Hull, 174 AD2d 911,571 NYS2d 609 [1991]). Likewise, while the court is sensitive to the implication of the petitioners’ claim that the Zoning Board discredited their proof in favor of the affidavits and hearing testimony of “insiders,” i.e., the Reeves and “their friends,” it remains constrained by the limited scope of review afforded in article 78 proceedings, particularly absent proof of actual bias or favoritism. The court also rejects the petitioners’ implicit claim that judicial review of a zoning board’s determination requires some kind of comparative analysis of the quality and quantity of the evidence adduced in support of and in opposition to an application. A court may not weigh the evidence or reject the choice made by the board where the evidence is conflicting and room for choice exists (Matter of Toys “R” Us v Silva, supra). Even to the extent it has been held that a board’s determination must be supported by “substantial evidence,” a court need only decide whether the record contains sufficient evidence to support the rationality of the board’s determination (Matter of Sasso v Osgood, 86 NY2d 374,633 NYS2d 259 r1995J; Matter of Slonim v Town of E. Hampton Zoning Bd. of Appeals, 119 AD3d 699, 988 NYS2d 890 [2014]. lv denied 26 NY3d 915, 23 NYS3d 641 [2015]) (emphasis added).

 As to the petitioners’ claim that the Reeves failed to sustain their “high” burden of persuasion, the court notes that this standard applies only to a matter before a municipal officer or board and not to a judicial proceeding; it bears repeating that the scope of judicial review of a zoning board’s determination is limited to an examination of whether the determination has a rational basis, even when that determination involves an application to establish or certify a prior conforming use (e.g. Matter of Keller v Haller supra; Matter of Watral v Scheyer, 223 AD2d 711, 637 NYS2d 431 [1996]). Whether, as the petitioners further contend, the Reeves lacked the necessary permits, certificates, and approvals to operate a marina on the property until the new docks and bulkheading were constructed and completed in 2008, or whether the Lessards did not have shellfish diggers permits from 1994 through 1997 so they could not have lawfully been using the Reeves’ property for that purpose during that time, is largely irrelevant.

Ultimately, the Court upheld the ZBAs determination affirming the Building Department Administrator’s letter; the petition was denied and the proceeding dismissed. Given that the matter has been an issue before the Town of Riverhead since 2003 and the Court since 2010, it is not surprising that Petitioners filed a notice of appeal.

[1] In 1959 with the first enactment of zoning, Riverhead Town rendered the commercial oyster operation on the property a preexisting nonconforming use. The six cottages became pre-existing nonconforming in September 1970 when the Town of Riverhead amended the zoning code definition of Marina Resort to exclude summer cottages. In 2004, the Town re-zoned the property to RB-40, eliminating marinas as permitted uses rendering the marina use, docks and bulkheading on-site nonconforming. Additionally, Riverhead Town Code §301-222(C) provides that a nonconforming use may not be reestablished “where such nonconforming use has been discontinued for a period of one year.”

In 2014, the New York State Legislature enacted a significant amendment to the Environmental Conservation Law (ECL) reducing setbacks required to discharge a long bow in the lawful act of hunting from 500 feet to 150 feet from occupied buildings and public places.  ECL11-0931(2).  This created a ripple effect in many Long Island municipalities that previously codified the State’s regulation of 500-feet.  For example, the Town of Smithtown still maintains a local law requiring a 500-foot setback, which now conflicts with the State’s 2014 150-foot setback requirement.

The question now becomes whether New York’s preemption doctrine prevents municipalities from maintaining local laws conflicting with State law.  In this case, can the Town of Smithtown maintain its 500-foot setback for the discharge of a long bow as opposed to the State’s 150-foot setback?

Some would say that the State occupies the field of hunting, because it declared title to the wildlife in its sovereign capacity for the benefit of all the people (ECL 11-0105). Consequently, hunting the State’s wildlife is regulated by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) ECL Title 7.

However, the State also provided municipalities broad latitude to regulate themselves through the Municipal Home Rule Law (MHR).  MHR confers on local governments the authority to adopt laws for, among other things, the protection of health, safety and welfare, to the extent they are not inconsistent with either the State Constitution or any other State law. MHR 10(1)(ii).

In DJI Restaurant v City of New York , the Court of Appeals explained the two ways State law preempts local laws as follows: (1) where an express conflict exists between State and local law (conflict preemption) and (2) where the State has evidenced its intent to occupy the field (field preemption).

Field preemption exists when a local law regulating the same subject matter is deemed inconsistent with the State law.  In this situation, the local law must yield, because it thwarts the State’s overriding policy for State-wide uniformity. See, Matter of Chwick v. Mulvey, (state law regarding firearm licenses preempted a Nassau County ordinance against “deceptively colored” handguns where comprehensive regulations by the State demonstrate the Legislature’s intent to occupy the field”).

Presently, New York has not expressly preempted the regulation of hunting; and there does not appear to be any case directly on point for conflict preemption.  However, the State’s intent to “occupy the field” of hunting appears evidenced by comprehensive ECL statutes, the framework of NYSDEC regulations and strict licensing requirements. See, ECL Title 11.

Moreover,  given the purpose and scope of the State’s legislative scheme, including the need for statewide uniformity, the State need not expressly state that it is preempting local municipalities in the area of hunting. See generally, Albany Area Blders v. Town of Guiderland,  However, in the case of Smithtown, it appears the State may have to take a more explicit position or risk the balkanization of hunting regulations on Long Island and possibly other parts of the State.  This seems particularly counterintuitive when dealing with the State’s wildlife.

On January 18,  2018, the Appellate Division, Second Department, upheld a decision denying an application for a religious real property tax exemption on the grounds that the property owner’s use of the main structure as a dormitory and living quarters for 20 students ran contrary to the one family dwelling Certificate of Occupancy issued for the premises and thus violated the Town of Ramapo’s zoning laws.  See, Congregation Ateres Yisroel v Town of Ramapo, 2014-09194.  

In Congregation Ateres Yisroel, plaintiff claimed and received a religious real property tax exemption for the years 2008-2011.  In 2012, plaintiff sought to renew its religious tax exemption by submitting a renewal application stating that no changes had been made to the property’s ownership or use from 2011 to 2012.    The Town denied the request on the grounds that plaintiff erected two trailers on the premises without seeking permits or approvals and that plaintiff used the main structure to house 20 students in dormitory style living quarters all in contravention to a 1954 Certificate of Occupancy stating the premises is certified as a “one family dwelling.”

Without any discussion or analysis of whether the students being housed at the property were engaged in conduct of a religious nature, the Second Department, agreed with the trial court that use of the premises for dormitory style living contravenes the “one family dwelling” Certificate of Occupancy and as a result, denial of the religious real property tax exemption was upheld.

Now, this decision is not particularly shocking or even interesting for that matter.  However, this decision caught my attention because not long ago, we published a blog post entitled “Court Supports an Expansive View of What Constitutes a Religious Use.”  In that post, the Third Department reinstated a decision of the City of Albany’s Zoning Board holding that a church’s partnership with a not-for-profit entity to house 14 homeless individuals at the church parsonage was a permissible use for a house of worship.  The Court agreed that assisting the homeless is consistent with the mission and actions of a house of worship.   See, Matter of Sullivan v Board of Zoning Appeals of City of Albany.

Although Sullivan did not involve a real property tax exemption, it is quite likely that the house of worship in the Sullivan case continues to receive a religious real property tax exemption despite the fact that the church is housing 14 homeless people in a single family zoning district.  To the contrary, Congregation Ateres Yisroel’s lost its religious real property tax exemption based on its use of its premises to house 20 students.  Both religious uses are in single family zoning districts, and both religious uses are housing multiple people.

The question perhaps becomes – Why is sheltering the homeless more in line with a religious purpose than housing 20 students?  The facts in Congregation Ateres Yisroel are silent as to why the students were being housed at the property and whether their housing was in furtherance of a religious purpose.  If Congregation Ateres Yisroel could establish that the student housing had some connection to its religious purpose, perhaps the result of this case would be different.    At a minimum, we may have a possible split in the Departments as to what types of uses constitute “religious uses” and where and how do we draw the line?   Perhaps our next update on this topic will be the result of a decision by our State’s highest court.  Tune in each Monday for the latest news.

A fierce legal battle is currently being waged between preservationists and the City of New York (“City”) over a parcel of land in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, known as Marx Brothers Playground.  The parcel, which is located between 96th and 97th Streets on Second Avenue, is named after legendary comics Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Gummo and Zeppo Marx, who were raised at nearby 179 East 93rd Street.  The 1.5-acre public recreation area was created in 1947, and currently contains soccer and baseball fields.  The portion of the site where the playground was located is temporarily being used by the Metropolitan Transit Authority as a staging area for the construction of the Second Avenue Subway.  The entire site is slated for redevelopment by a private developer, who plans to construct a high-rise, mixed-use building containing more than 1,200 apartments, three schools and commercial space.

Although City Parks Department’s leaf logo adorns the site, the property is officially classified as a “jointly operated playground” or “JOP” because it was established under the joint jurisdiction of both the Parks Department and Department of Education, which operates an adjacent vocational high school.  Typically, a JOP is used by the students of the adjacent school during the school day, and the general public outside of school hours.

In an effort to stop the proposed project, preservationists recently commenced an Article 78 proceeding, entitled Carnegie Hill Neighbors, Inc. v. City of New York (Index No. 161375/20017). The preservationists claim, among other things, that Marx Brothers Playground is parkland and, as such, cannot be conveyed by the City to a private developer without State legislation authorizing the termination of its use as a park and its transfer from the City.  Other opponents of the project fear that the redevelopment of the playground will create a slippery slope that will lead to private developers targeting other City-owned recreation facilities.  City officials, on the other hand, insist that the space is a playground, as its name suggests, and not parkland.  They also point out that the City plans to relocate and replace the playground elsewhere on the block.

What appears to be a minor matter of semantics is actually crucial to the outcome of the dispute.  That is because under the State’s public trust doctrine, parks cannot be “alienated” or used for an extended period for non-park purposes without State legislative approval.  The City claims that there is no similar requirement for playgrounds.  A parcel of land may constitute parkland either by express dedication, such as by deed or legislative enactment, or by implied dedication, such as by a continuous use of the property as a public park or recreation area.  Once land is dedicated to parkland use, the dedication is irrevocable absent specific State legislative approval.

The public trust doctrine can trace its roots to the nearly century-old case of Williams v. Gallatin, 229 NY 248 (1920), when a taxpayer sought to enjoin the City’s Commissioner of Parks from leasing the Central Park Arsenal Building to the Safety Institute of America, arguing that the transaction was “foreign to park purposes.” In prohibiting the lease, the Court of Appeals found that a park was a recreational pleasure area set aside to promote public health and welfare and, as such, “no objects, however worthy…which have no connection with park purposes, should be permitted to encroach upon [parkland] without legislative authority plainly conferred.” The Court stated that the legislative will was that Central Park “should be kept open as a public park ought to be and not be turned over by the commissioner of parks to other uses. It must be kept free from intrusion of every kind which would interfere in any degree with its complete use for this end.”

Prior to the filing of the lawsuit, the City Council and State Legislature had apparently determined that Marx Brothers Playground was, in fact, parkland, because the City Council submitted a “Home Rule Request” to the State Legislature seeking authority to “alienate” or discontinue its use as parkland.  The Legislature quickly acted on the request and passed bills (A. 8419/S. 6721) entitled “[a]n Act in relation to authorizing discontinuance of the use as parkland of the land in the City of New York commonly known as the Marx Brothers Playground.”  Opponents of the City’s plan appealed to the Governor to veto the legislation.  Governor Cuomo eventually signed the legislation, but he attached a “chapter amendment” in the form of a memorandum that ordered Rose Harvey, Commissioner of the State Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, to “investigate all of the property’s historical records, uses, and any other factor relevant to the land’s designation.”

As a result of this unusual move by the Governor, the City must now wait for Commissioner Harvey’s assessment before it can proceed with its plans.  It will also have to wait for the pending lawsuit to play out in the Supreme Court.

It is well established that zoning codes and regulations are in derogation of property owners’ rights in and to the use of their property. Zoning restricts the use of land which was otherwise free of restrictions.  An owner’s rights in use of land are among the oldest and enjoy the most protection under common law and state and federal constitutions. Therefore, the courts of New York have regularly and consistently held that (1) any such codes and regulations must be strictly construed and (2) any ambiguity must be construed against the municipality and in favor of the property owner:

“Since zoning regulations are in derogation of the common law, they must be strictly construed against the municipality which has enacted and seeks to enforce them. Any ambiguity in the language used in such regulations must be resolved in favor of the property owner.”

Because of the heightened scrutiny of zoning regulations for ambiguity, they are difficult to draft and often subject to litigation – which can get deep into the weeds of statutory construction and even grammar. For example, where a zoning code required site plan review for “any new construction or any addition thereto in excess of 2000 sq. ft.,” the Zoning Board found that the limitation of 2,000 sq. ft. applied only to “any addition” and not to “any new construction.” The Third Department reversed, in part because there was no comma between “thereto” and “in excess of.” Your high school English (or Latin) teacher would rejoice at the deconstructive analysis.

Other examples: Does prohibition of car storage prohibit a parking garage, where there is no definition of “storage” in the code? (Answer = No; parking garage is OK) Is a code validly applied which does not allow an owner to “store” a boat in the front yard, where there is, again, no definition of how long a boat must be in the front yard to be deemed to be “stored” there? (Answer = Code not valid because of ambiguity.) Can a code require building permits for all construction “other than ordinary repairs that are not structural?” (Answer = No; code invalidly applied because there was no definition of what constitutes “ordinary” or “not structural” repairs.) Is a helicopter pad an “airport” which is defined as a landing area that is used “regularly?” (Answer = Yes; it was used frequently enough to be deemed “regular.”)

A recent code amendment in an East End municipality requires that driveway gates must have a “setback to the street” of no less than 20 feet or 40 feet (depending on lot size). What is the “street?” The paved roadway? The lot line dividing the private property from the municipality’s right-of-way for the road? The difference could be 10 or 15 feet or more of unpaved verge or shoulder between the pavement and the lot line.

The difficulty in drafting is highlighted by these cases which pit the purportedly “obvious” reading of the code against the rule of strict construction – resolving any ambiguity in favor of the property owner. The burden on the municipality is especially acute where municipal officials come up with different interpretations. The statute is certainly vague and ambiguous when reasonable municipal minds differ – when “reasonable enforcement officers could come to different conclusions” – and they actually did.

Moreover, the New York courts have rejected the argument that Zoning Boards have the authority to remove the ambiguity by choosing the interpretation that the Board prefers. Rather, the courts recognize that while a board’s interpretation is entitled to deference in most situations, where the statute is ambiguous the question becomes a matter of law and the usual deference does not apply.

In a recent Zoning Board case, the same beneficial owners had a residence on one lot and a tennis court, without a home, on another immediately adjacent lot. There was no dispute that the tennis court was a valid subordinate use to the adjacent residence. However, the municipality would not approve a certificate of occupancy for the tennis court because there was no residence on the court property. There was no direct prohibition in the zoning code of an accessory use on a lot without a principal use. The municipality relied solely and entirely on the code’s definition of accessory use as:

“A subordinate use, building or structure customarily incidental to and located on the same lot occupied by the main use, building or structure. The term . . .”accessory structure” may include a . . . tennis court. . . .” (Emphasis added)

The owners sought relief in two separate ways. First, they argued for an interpretation that the code did not require that the tennis court and the dwelling be on the same lot because the word “customarily” modified both “incidental to” and “located on the same lot.” Therefore, an accessory structure is defined as only customarily located on the same lot as the main use. “Customarily” does not mean “always” or “required.” At the very least, the code was ambiguous on this point and, they argued, could not be used by the municipality to deny the owners the right to maintain the tennis court on the lot by itself.

The owners also sought a variance to allow the stand-alone tennis court in the event that the Zoning Board rejected their ambiguity argument. The Zoning Board rejected the argument that the ambiguity of the code section made it unenforceable, finding that they had regularly interpreted the code against the owners’ position. However, the Zoning Board granted the variance allowing the tennis court to exist without a main use on the same lot. A court might have overturned the Board’s contention that it had the right to interpret the ambiguous language in favor of the municipality, since that issue is a matter of law and the interpretation must be in favor of the property owner. But the bottom line is that the applicants got their tennis court and probably don’t care that it was by variance and not by voiding or interpreting an ambiguous code provision – and an Article 78 was averted.

And therein lies the point of this blog: The “ambiguity” rule can be difficult for applicants because courts can, and do, find that the code is not so ambiguous after all. On the other hand, zoning and planning Boards – and, especially, their counsel – know that the “ambiguity” rule is deep-rooted in New York law and that the courts do not hesitate to apply the rule as a matter of law, without deference to the boards. The bottom line is that making a legitimate “ambiguity rule” argument at the municipal board level can be successful in itself, but it is perhaps most important as a prod to the board to grant a variance or site plan or other municipal approval.

A not-so-clear code provision can be very helpful in obtaining a municipal approval!